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College Weekend Preview: May 14-16
By Will Kimmey
Believers of the "good pitching beats good hitting" mantra get some ammunition from the fact that the nation's top five teams in ERA are all sitting in this week's Top 25: Rice, Texas, Long Beach State, Central Florida and Oral Roberts.
Perusing the rosters of at least the first four teams here turns up a handful of power arms per pitching staff--guys who can run fastballs into the low-90s and breaking balls in the low-80s or better consistently. So the college baseball twist might be that power pitching--not just guys who are good because they rely mostly on breaking balls--beats good hitting. That's because most college hitters have slider-speed bats, so lineups that feast upon thumbing control freaks during the regular season can run into trouble on the way to Omaha when a team trots out a few fireballers.
No. 4 Rice leads the country with a 2.46 ERA, thanks to a trio of righthanders who top out at 96. The Owls have kept that ERA up--or down--even without 6-foot-9 righthander Jeff Niemann since he left an April 13 start at Texas with a groin injury. A man of few words, Niemann said he was feeling "good" on Thursday, but that could mean anything from he's ready to return or that he's glad exams are over.
Junior righthander Josh Baker has supplemented Rice's loss of one of its trio of first-round picks. The oft-overlooked 6-foot-5 pitcher has made the conference starts Niemann has missed and is 7-2, 2.91 with 71 strikeouts and 33 walks in 74 innings. He doesn't hit the 96 mph the others can but tops out around 92-93 and pitches right at 90. He has a solid slider and a good changeup at times and could be drafted in the third to fifth round, just like he was out of high school in 2001 when the Rangers chose him in the fourth round.
"On almost any other staff, Josh Baker would be the No. 1 pitcher," Rice coach Wayne Graham said.
Baker was the only Owls pitcher to win last weekend against Hawaii, allowing one run on three hits over 6 2/3 innings while registering six strikeouts. Though Rice dropped two of three against coach Mike Trapasso's Rainbows, it still leads the Western Athletic Conference at 17-3. The Owls have won or shared the WAC title (regular season or tournament) every year since joining the league in 1997. Rice can make its seventh straight championship all but a formality with a series win this weekend against Nevada, which is tied with Hawaii for second in the league at 12-9.
There's no doubt Rice's top three starters, or four when you include Baker, are unparalleled in college baseball. However, Texas makes a compelling argument for having the nation's best staff, judging from top to bottom. The Longhorns have won all four games against the Owls this year and check in at a close second in the ERA race (2.48). No. 1 Texas has also won all four meetings against Rice this year.
"People ask me what's the difference between that staff this year and the one from 2002 when we won the College World Series," said Frank Anderson, who left his job as Texas' pitching coach to take over the Oklahoma State job this season. "It's the middle relief. That 2002 team had guys we could get by with. This one has guys who can dominate."
Texas still has Huston Street anchoring the bullpen, but he's a junior now and could be better rested than in his CWS Most Outstanding Player run as a freshman, because he missed about a month earlier this season with a groin injury. Sophomore righthander J. Brent Cox earned five saves in Street's absence and earned an invite to tryout for Team USA this summer with his 1.81 ERA. Freshmen Randy Boone and Kyle McCulloch also have strong stuff, whether they're used as midweek starters or weekend relievers. Having junior lefthander J.P. Howell (who transferred in last year) eat 92 innings with an 11-1, 1.77 record also helps the bullpen depth.
Texas plays a nonconference doubleheader against North Carolina State on Saturday.
Long Beach State takes third with a 2.61 mark, largely thanks to the increasingly stunning performances of junior righthander Jered Weaver (school-record 17 punchouts last week) and sophomore lefty Cesar Ramos, who was invited to tryout for Team USA this summer based on his Weaver-like command and 9-3, 2.01 record. The No. 8 Dirtbags travel to face UC Riverside this weekend, and junior righthander A.J. Shappi (8-2, 3.54) should be back on the mound Sunday for the Highlanders after missing last week's turn with some muscle soreness.
No. 23 Central Florida has used a school-record 12 shutouts to post the nation's fourth-best ERA thus far, at 2.83. The Atlantic Sun-leading Golden Knights play Mercer in their final home series of the year.
Oral Roberts has used its normal domination of the Mid-Continent Conference to produce a 2.86 ERA, fifth in the country. The 16th-rated Golden Eagles, 14-0 in conference, play host to second-place Oakland (9-7) this weekend for a pair of doubleheaders. If Oral Roberts manages a sweep, it would clinch the top seed in the league tournament.
AROUND THE NATION
• Washington moved up to No. 15 this week on the strength of its young but powerful pitching staff, holding Stanford to just two runs in the Friday and Sunday games last weekend. But the Huskies are also backed by a strong lineup that's deep in veterans. Senior third baseman Jon Otness proved that this week in two wins against Portland. He tore up the Pilots, going 6-for-9 with two homers and six RBIs.
Washington travels to Southern California this weekend for three. The Huskies swept the Trojans last year to keep them out of the postseason, and USC is once again in trouble regarding a regional bid, sitting at just 21-25, 7-8 in the Pacific-10 Conference.
Getting two wins there and two more next week in its final Pac-10 series of the year would put Washington at 16-8 in the league and put some pressure on No. 2 Stanford. The Cardinal stands at 11-4 but has three tough series coming up, beginning with a trip to Arizona this week. Stanford finishes with Southern California at home, then a series with No. 19 Arizona State, which should have plenty of runs scored.
Those Sun Devils are just 7-8 in the conference, but have a top-five RPI and could win a national seed with a strong finish. That quest starts this week against Oregon State, another team in the postseason hunt. The Beavers (27-15, 7-8) already have surpassed last season's overall wins total but probably need to push into at least fifth place in the league to be comfortable on Selection Monday (May 31). A win over Stanford and four against Washington (though Oregon State lost two of the three league games against the Huskies) make for a nice resume to this point, but a series win against Arizona State could do wonders for a team with an RPI around 50. The Beavers also have a trip to Washington State and a home series with UCLA remaining.
"It's one game at a time," OSU head coach Pat Casey said. "I'd say that at a minimum, we're going to have to win five of our conference games. I know our RPI is pretty good. I'd hope we can win enough conference games to get a look."
Before dispersing to take on the Beavers, those Bruins and Cougars will meet this weekend in the final home series for retiring UCLA coach Gary Adams. Sunday's game will feature a tribute to Adams and the outgoing seniors.
• No. 3 Miami, which joins the Atlantic Coast Conference next year, has posted an 8-4 record in four series against members of that league this year and welcomes North Carolina to town this weekend. Friday's 8 p.m. game will be shown on CSTV and pits Hurricanes senior lefthander J.D. Cockroft against Tar Heels freshman righthander Daniel Bard.
North Carolina enters the game having lost three straight dating back to Sunday's loss to Maryland, but has the tools to be the first team to win a series at Miami this year: a deep pitching staff fronted by young power arms and a strong offense. The Tar Heels lineup boasts three of the 11 ACC players who have recorded double-digits in home runs with junior right fielder Marshall Hubbard (14), senior first baseman/third baseman Sammy Hewitt (11) and junior catcher Chris Iannetta (10). North Carolina also leads the league with a .455 slugging percentage.
Virginia, the nation's No. 20 team, can clinch its first ACC regular-season title since 1972 with a couple of wins against Wake Forest. The league's second- and third-place teams, No. 25 Georgia Tech and Clemson, meet in Atlanta this weekend with one team needing a sweep to have any hope of catching Virginia in the conference race and to keep hope alive for serving as a regional host.
• It hasn't been a good week to be Texas-Pan American. The Broncs lost two games off their schedule when No. 12 Arkansas cancelled the second game of the two schools' two-game midweek set, and No. 18 Oklahoma banged the Friday tilt in what was supposed to be a three-game set in Norman. There won't be any ill will, as both Top 25 teams had scheduled more than the NCAA-mandated 56 total games in case of rainouts. Good weather meant the Razorbacks and Sooners got in all of their games and had to excise one contest to not push past that limit. Arkansas heads to Starkville for a three-game series with Mississippi State this weekend.
• The flip side of that spectrum features Coastal Carolina adding a doubleheader Tuesday against Savannah State, with the Chanticleers making up for losing a trio of early games to the wet stuff. Texas State also added a game Tuesday, against surprise Southwestern Athletic Conference champ Texas Southern. The Tigers became the first team other than Southern, Jackson State or Grambling to win the SWAC baseball title since 1959.
While we're talking about Savannah State and the SWAC, let's toss in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Chicago State. Those are the 19 teams covered by a great college baseball Website BlackCollegeBaseball.com, which awarded its first set of awards this week. Jackson State junior outfielder Bryant Lange won the player of the year award after batting .439 with 29 steals in 31 attempts. Delaware State junior Shawn Phillips went 8-2, 2.19 to win the pitcher of the year honors. Prairie View A&M's Michael Robertson won the coach of the year award by taking the Panthers from 10-45 last year to 30-26 in 2004.
• Baylor welcomes Nebraska to town this weekend for a key Big 12 series between the sixth- and seventh-place teams. We've got the Big 12 down for six NCAA tournament bids, but the tough part is that Baylor (10-9) sits two games under .500 with eight regular season games (and possibly a few more in the conference tournament) remaining. The Bears must have a winning record to participate in the postseason, and they see No. 4 Rice and a very tough series at fourth-place Texas Tech (12-8) still in front of them. The good news for Baylor is the return of sophomore righthander Mark McCormick, who could start Sunday after being on the shelf for six weeks with shoulder stiffness. He worked 2 2/3 innings Tuesday in his first start since March 26.
Nebraska (10-11) needs the series as much as Baylor. The Huskers are 33-16, but just 10-11 in the conference with only a home series with Oklahoma left after this weekend. The Huskers have lost their last five Big 12 series.
Another Big 12 set of note features Texas Tech travelling to No. 22 Oklahoma State, which is in third place with a 14-6 record. No. 14 Texas A&M plays host to Kansas State.
With all these league standings being tossed around, it's fair to point out, courtesy of Baylor baseball contact Larry Little, that Texas-Arlington actually leads the Big 12 with a 6-2 record after topping the Bears on Tuesday. That's a great nugget of info, especially since we all know the Mavericks are actually in the Southland Conference, where they are 10-11. Maybe UT-A can work some sort of conference exchange program.
• No. 6 East Carolina heads west to face Southern Mississippi in a matchup of two of Conference USA's most northern schools in the standings. But the Pirates, who have a four-game lead, can make that series meaningless as far as the regular-season title is concerned by sweeping Texas Christian this weekend. That's not an easy task, and Southern Miss is the only team to break out the brooms against the Horned Frogs in a three-game series this year. Then again, ECU has swept six straight series. The Golden Eagles will be rooting for TCU though, and they'll also be in North Carolina doing their scoreboard-watching while taking on Charlotte.
No, we haven't forgotten about No. 13 Tulane, which is tied for second with Southern Miss at 17-7. The problem is the Green Wave also sits for games behind the Pirates and doesn't control its own fate. Tulane did win two of three at ECU earlier this season, and it finishes with St. Louis and at Houston.
• Can you believe we made it this far with only a passing mention of the Southeastern Conference? We're still carrying the banner that says the SEC is the nation's deepest and toughest conference. Remember way back at the beginning of this opus when we discussed how the top five teams in ERA are all among the nation's elite? Well, team No. 6 is Alabama at 2.92. And the Crimson Tide has yet to win a league series.
The week's marquee league matchup has No. 11 Mississippi, which just won two of three against Arkansas, continuing down its gauntlet of a finish by visiting No. 9 Florida. The Rebels finish against No. 5 Louisiana State next week and played at No. 7 South Carolina two weeks ago. Given that Arkansas was ranked eighth last week, Mississippi could be looking at four straight weekends against Top 10 opponents.
Mississippi hopes to have sophomore lefthander Stephen Head available to start or relieve this weekend after he was limited only to first base duties after he had difficulty getting loose last weekend. Elbow soreness has pushed Brae Wright, also a sophomore lefty, out of action the last few weeks, and there was no indication if he'd be ready to go this week or need a week or two more of rest. Both starting assignments after Mark Holliman's Friday appearance are listed as TBA this week.
Having one or both of those lefties ready for Florida would be a good thing, as the Gators lead the SEC with a .404 on-base percentage. That's a big reason why they are tied with Arkansas atop the league with a 16-8 record. (Florida owns the tiebreaker because it won the season series 2-1.) The Gators are also coming off an emotional 3-2 win against Florida State in which they scored the winning runs in the bottom of the ninth.
Vanderbilt heads to LSU this week in an interesting stylistic clash. The Tigers maul opponents with a barrage of offense and lead the conference in batting average and runs scored. Vanderbilt's pitching staff features junior lefty Jeremy Sowers, a likely first-round pick, and sophomore lefty Ryan Mullins, who's trying to push himself into that same territory next year with a 6-2, 2.56 mark.
The mound has been something of a question mark for LSU this year. Freshman lefty Clay Dirks replaced junior southpaw Lane Mestepey in the weekend rotation at the end of March, but has shown signs of fatigue recently and won't be in the rotation this weekend. Mestepey takes his Friday spot. Saturday's starter, righthander Justin Meier, was LSU's best arm last year as a freshman has battled problems with elevating the ball since conference play began. Senior righthander Nate Bumstead didn't start the season in the rotation because of shoulder troubles but has been the team's most consistent contributor on Sundays.
South Carolina escaped with a series win at Auburn last weekend and gets another tough task in Tennessee this week. Junior righthander Billy Buckner, who has not pitched since April 16 because of mononucleosis, will be back in uniform this weekend and likely available in a relief role. His absence allowed the Gamecocks to use freshman Arik Hempy in the rotation, and Hempy's success combined with Buckner's return and the presence of juniors Aaron Rawl and Matt Campbell gives South Carolina four SEC-quality starters with the postseason looming. What's not to like?
No. 24 Georgia has 10 straight conference wins and wants Nos. 11-13 this weekend at home against Auburn, which moved closer Steven Register into the rotation last weekend. Register allowed seven earned runs in 4 2/3 innings in his first career start and is listed as the probable starter for Sunday.
• Pittsburgh and No. 10 Notre Dame lead the Big East race at 15-5, but the Panthers hold the edge after sweeping a doubleheader against the Irish. St. John's and Rutgers lurk just behind at 13-5.
"We've just got to keep winning Big East games," Pittsburgh assistant coach Dan Ninemire said. "We're kind of in a good situation. We play Connecticut this week, and that is a good team, but we've already played Notre Dame and Rutgers. They play this weekend so hopefully they'll beat up on each other a little bit." St. John's faces Seton Hall this weekend before finishing with a shot at Pittsburgh.
• If this were a wrestling or boxing match, some blowhard would be touting that UC Irvine's No. 21 belt (or ranking) was on the line against top contender and Big West leader Cal State Fullerton. Irvine, the home team, probably needs to win three or four more conference games to finish third in the league and wrap up its first NCAA tournament bid since the program was resuscitated three years ago. UC Riverside holds that spot now and comes to Irvine next week after playing host to Long Beach State this weekend.
This series is key for Fullerton in that it holds a one-game lead over the Beach, which it faces in a likely showdown for the league crown next week. Talking about the Titans makes for a reminder that there's no hotter hitter than their junior catcher Kurt Suzuki. He's fourth in the nation with a .545 on-base percentage and sixth with a .443 average.
• The top four teams in the Colonial Athletic Association all play one another this weekend as first-place George Mason (15-3) welcomes Delaware (10-7) to Northern Virginia. Just down Interstate 95 in Richmond, second-place Virginia Commonwealth (13-5) and junior righthander Justin Orenduff take on hard-charging North Carolina-Wilmington (12-5), which had won nine straight games before dropping a pair of midweek affairs.
• Wichita State isn't a Top 25 resident anymore after losing three of four Missouri Valley Conference games to Creighton last week. The Shockers play host to 2003 league champion Southwest Missouri State this weekend, and a series sweep by the Bears would pull them within a half-game of first place.
• Maryland senior Anthony Buffone, known as "Mini Jim Leyritz" for his versatility, played all nine positions Tuesday in a 10-4 win against Duquesne. Current Florida State assistant coach Mike Martin Jr. was the last Atlantic Coast Conference player to play all nine positions, doing it for the Seminoles in 1994. Buffone, who had never pitched before in his college career, recorded the final out of the seventh inning. He has played in 168 consecutive games, which ranks first in the ACC.
• Hofstra third baseman Mike Walsh hit for the cycle Tuesday in a 9-8 win against Seton Hall. It marked the first time the Pride have defeated a Big East opponent since 1995.
• Cincinnati catcher Steve Pickerell homered twice in the fourth inning, including a grand slam, of a 9-8 win Tuesday against Ball State.